Earning a master's in social work online can lead to a meaningful career working directly with individuals, children, and families.
During an online social work degree, students learn to diagnose behavioral issues, advocate for at-risk communities, and help individuals and groups manage challenges in their daily lives. With a growing number of families falling into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the social work field will need more experienced professionals to support struggling communities.
Online MSW programs are a flexible route to meaningful work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects faster-than-average job growth for social workers from 2020-2030. The median annual salary in 2020 was $51,760.
Our list ranks the best online MSW programs for 2021. Future online MSW students can use this ranking to find the right program for them. This article also introduces social work concentrations, licensure requirements for sreocial workers, and common social work careers.
Featured MSW Programs
What Is an Online Master's in Social Work?
An online MSW program trains students in areas like social welfare policy, social work research, and clinical social work. Many online MSW programs offer concentrations in children and families, school social work, or social work administration. The degree builds strong interpersonal, research, and analytical skills.
Pursuing a master's in social work online allows enrollees to complete practicum requirements in their local areas. Completing an MSW degree online generally takes two years for full-time students, though some programs offer an accelerated option. After earning an online MSW, graduates can apply for social work licensure and pursue employment in the field.
The Best Online Master's in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs
UCF currently serves over 71,000 students annually, making it the largest university by enrollment in its home state and one of the largest in the nation. This public university currently offers an online master's in social work that typically takes 2-3 years to complete.
UCF's online MSW program offers two tracks: a 32-credit advanced and a 62-credit traditional program. Both programs take a generalist approach to social work ethics, practice, and philosophy. Course topics include diverse client populations, clinical practice with LGBTQ+ clients, and family practice.
Established in 1956, USF was originally built on a World War II airfield. The school now boasts a student body of over 50,000 annually and has a strong reputation as a research hub.
The online master's in social work at USF consists of 35-60 credits. The program's curriculum begins with 17 credits of foundational study, followed by more advanced scholarly study in clinical work for individuals, families, and small groups. The experience culminates with a field practicum where students apply theory to client interactions at a partnering agency.
Founded in 1883, the University of North Dakota is its home state's oldest university. The school currently offers over 120 online degree and certificate programs, and students can earn a master's in social work online.
The 36-60 credit program takes 1-3 years to complete and tailors its formatting to working students. Course topics include human behavior in the social environment, social policy, and field education.
Founded in 1885, ASU has garnered attention for its Skysong facility, a mixed-use development in Scottsdale that provides research and entrepreneurship opportunities for students.
ASU's 51-60 credit online social work master's degree allows learners to choose a portfolio, applied project, thesis, or integrative capstone at the culmination of the degree. Course topics in the curriculum include research methods in social work, social policy and services, and macro social work practice.
UTRGV currently serves over 32,000 students annually from its Southern Texas campus and onlne, the majority of whom are of Hispanic ancestry. In 2020, the school earned recognition in Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine as the fourth best school nationwide for awarding master's degrees to Hispanic learners.
The two-year, 63-credit online master's in social work at UTRGV prepares learners for advanced practice with majority-Latino populations and comes in an accelerated format. The program also offers an optional concentration in administration and community practice.
Founded in 1871, U of A is the second oldest higher education institution in Arkansas. Over 27,000 students currently attend the school, which features over 200 traditional and online programs.
UA's 39-credit, online, advanced standing master's in social work takes one year to complete and only allows students to take courses full time. The learning experience culminates with a year-long internship at an approved setting. The school sometimes allows students to complete their internships at their current workplaces. Course topics include social work research and technology, social work policy, and social work practice.
Since 1882, EWU has provided affordable education to Eastern Washington and beyond through traditional and online programs. Over 12,000 students currently attend the school annually.
EWU's 51-90-credit online social work master's degree examines the social work field through a generalist or advanced generalist lens. The curriculum gives added emphasis to leadership skills in social work and explores social justice aspects of treating diverse populations. Course topics include human development in contemporary environments, social work practice in a diverse society, and foundations of professional social work practice.
Based in Springfield since 1905, Missouri State has become one of the most well-regarded public universities in the Midwest. As the second largest higher education institution in Missouri, the school currently serves a student body of over 24,000 every year.
Missouri State students can take a 34-62-credit master's in social work online, focusing on advanced generalist courses. Students can enroll either part or full time. The program's curriculum includes coursework in rural health, substance use and social work practice, and grant writing in health and human services.
USC is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and the largest private employer in the Los Angeles area. The school provides $337 million in financial aid to its students every year.
USC's online master's in social work typically takes two years to complete and requires students to choose a focus in one of three departmental areas: adult mental health and awareness; children, youth, and families; or social change and innovation. The program culminates with students completing field placements within their own communities.
Established in 1888 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, NMSU is the oldest higher education institution in New Mexico. It also ranked 48th in the Hispanic Outlook on Education magazine's Top 100 Colleges and Universities for Hispanics.
NMSU's 60-credit online master's in social work takes two years to complete and uses both asynchronous and synchronous course delivery formats. The program takes an advanced generalist focus that prepares learners for work with Latino-majority and Native American populations. Course topics include policy analysis and change, sociocultural concepts and populations of the Southwest, and social work research.
Founded in 1895, UTA serves over 42,000 students every year, over 10,000 of whom live either on campus or nearby.
The 61-credit online master's in social work at UTA uses a cohort model and takes 1-3 years to complete, depending on whether students take courses full or part time. The program takes an advanced generalist focus and allows students to choose between specialty tracks, including tracks in direct practice in aging, direct practice in children and families, and community and administrative practice.
The oldest and largest higher education institution in Alabama, UA offers several majors unavailable elsewhere in the state, including Romance languages, anthropology, and social work. UA students can also complete a social work master's program online.
UA's 42-60-credit online master's in social work combines online coursework, face-to-face labs, and a field placement. The program offers two concentrations: one in children, adolescents, and their families -- which prepares graduates for work in child welfare and mental health settings -- and an adults and their families concentration, which prepares for work in geriatric and adult mental health settings.
Based in Athens, West Virginia since 1872, CU was founded by veterans of both the Union and Confederacy armies. The school currently features a range of online programs that are tailored to the scheduling needs of working students.
The 60-credit, online master's in social work at CU operates on a systems-and-strengths paradigm and prepares graduates to work with rural populations. The curriculum consists of 24 credits of foundational coursework and 36 credits of advanced generalist study. Course topics include advanced policy in rural practice, advanced rural research, and Appalachian culture, structures, and environment.
Established in 1965, CSUSB sits in the midst of the beautiful San Bernardino mountains in the city's university district. Over 19,000 students attend the school annually.
CSUSB's 60-credit, online master's in social work covers five curricular areas: human behavior and the social environment, micro practice, macro practice, research, and field work. The program culminates with either a research project carried out in a field setting or a thesis on contemporary social work issues.
Founded by the Dakota Territories in 1862, USD actually preceded the existence of its home state by 27 years.
The 36-60-credit, online master's in social work at USD prepares graduates for careers providing social work services within South Dakota and the surrounding region. Course topics include practice with communities, advanced social policy, and diversity and social justice in rural and urban communities. The program is one of just 11 social work programs that implement the Path to Licensure program, which supplements online coursework with 500 hours of practical field education.
CSU is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and was founded in 1870. It has a strong reputation for its vigorous programs and high level of research activity, currently serving over 10,000 students annually with both on-campus and fully online courses and programs.
CSU's 39-64-credit, online master's in social work takes 2-3 years to complete, and the curriculum covers community advocacy, conflict resolution, and direct and indirect intervention strategies. The school encourages students to pursue their master of social work alongside other online graduate certificates in areas like nonprofit administration, military and veteran culture, or conflict resolution and mediation.
Established in 1838, VCU stands out among schools offering social work programs in Virginia. Its school of social work was the first in its home state, debuting in 1917.
VCU's 60-credit, online master's in social work takes around two years to complete and maintains small class sizes. Course topics include child welfare in social work practice, gender and substance abuse, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.
Based in Columbia since 1839, Mizzou is both a top-rated public university in the Midwest and a leader in social work research.
The 39-60-credit, online master's in social work at Mizzou allows students to choose between concentrations in advanced clinical practice or policy, planning, and administration in human services. The curriculum culminates with a 680-hour practicum, which must be completed in an approved setting. The online master's in social work is currently restricted to learners in either Missouri or states contiguous with Missouri.
UNC Charlotte is the second largest of the 17 member schools of the University of North Carolina system, serving 30,000 students annually through both traditional and online programs.
The online master's in social work at UNC Charlotte takes three years to complete. The learning experience combines synchronous and asynchronous online learning with in-person and virtual campus visits, where students can meet other members of their cohort. Course topics include advocacy and policy change, practice and program evaluation, and mental health assessment.
Established in New Brunswick in 1766, Rutgers is among the oldest and most prestigious universities in the nation.
The 39-60-credit, online master's in social work at Rutgers takes three years to complete and comes in an asynchronous learning format. Students can choose between concentrations in clinical social practice or management and policy. The program culminates with a field placement experience, which begins in the third semester. Course topics include diversity and oppression, management practice and theory, and violence against women and children.
UT Knoxville was founded in 1794, preceding Tennessee's establishment as a state by two years. Over 30,000 students currently attend UT Knoxville.
The 37-60-credit, online master's in social work at UT Knoxville takes 1-2 years to complete and utilizes both asynchronous and synchronous online learning formats. It also requires a field practicum or internship. The program's concentrations give students a choice between evidenced-based interpersonal practice or organizational leadership. Course topics include lifespan and neurophysiologic development, cognitive behavioral therapy, and military social work practice.
Established in 1870 in Columbus, Ohio State serves an annual student body of over 67,000, making it one of the largest schools in the nation. Ohio State's school of social work is the oldest continuously accredited social work school, with a history dating back to 1919.
The 43-63-credit, online master's in social work at Ohio State offers three concentrations: aging and health, mental health and substance abuse, and child and youth services. Course topics include diversity and cultural competence, engaging with evidence, and developmental changes across the lifespan. The learning experience culminates with an extensive field practicum or internship.
Founded in 1893, AU offers small class sizes and solid liberal arts programs. The school's online programs follow an asynchronous learning format and incorporate open educational resources.
AU's 60-credit, online master's in social work typically takes 2-3 years to complete and heavily features a field instruction component that allows students to apply theory to real-world contexts. Online students can choose from a variety of degree tracks, including leadership administration, health care, and forensic social work. Course topics include theories of human development, perspectives on psychopathology, and advanced social policy.
Located near downtown Houston, Texas, UH is a public university known for innovative research activity and academic vigor.
UH's 63-credit, online master's in social work follows a cohort model and blends asynchronous and synchronous online learning. The school allows students to structure the course sequence to focus on either clinical or macro social practice. Course topics include confronting oppression and injustice, cognitive behavioral interventions, and advanced social policy analysis. Students must also complete a 900-hour field practicum.
Founded in 1899, Texas State serves more than 38,000 students annually, offering a variety of degree programs, concentration options, and practical research opportunities.
The university's 36-62-credit, online master's in social work develops students' skills in practice, advocacy, and research. The program focuses on both direct practice and administrative services, teaching students how to work with individuals and families of all ages and backgrounds. In addition to core requirements, students can take electives in diversity, gerontology, healthcare, and working with veterans.
Online Master's in Social Work (MSW) Programs Ranking Guidelines
We selected the programs based on the quality of the program, the types of courses offered, the faculty, rankings, awards, and reputation, including the school's reputation for effectively providing online degree programs.
Here at TheBestSchools.org, we take the trust and welfare of our readers very seriously. When making our school and program rankings, our top priority is ensuring that our readers get accurate, unbiased information that can help them make informed decisions about online education. That's why we've developed a rigorous ranking methodology that keeps the needs of our readers front and center.
Our proprietary, multi-criteria ranking algorithm analyzes key data indicators — as collected by the federal government — for each school or program. What data we use depends on the focus of each specific ranking, but in all cases, our ranking methodology is impartial: Schools cannot buy better rankings at TBS.
While specific criteria under consideration can vary by ranking, there are a few data points that we value most highly. They are affordability, academic quality, and online enrollment. Below, we break down our algorithm to help you understand what you're getting when you use one of our rankings.
The data used in TBS rankings comes primarily from the federal government, and much of it is provided by the schools themselves. We aggregate and analyze this data to build our rankings.
The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is our primary source. Its data comes from annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Every college, university, or technical school with access to federal financial aid must participate in these surveys, which include questions about enrollment, graduation rates, finances, and faculty qualifications. This is publicly available data, which you can access yourself through the College Navigator.
Additionally, because we value a personal touch and the professional experience of our staff and Academic Advisory Board, we vet all results and adjust rankings as necessary based on our collected knowledge of schools and degree programs. Depending on the ranking, we may obtain additional input from AcademicInfluence.com, subject matter experts, prior TBS ranking lists, or other sources we deem relevant to a particular ranking.
Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology
About Our Ranking Factors
Here at TBS, we value what you value: quality education, affordability, and the accessibility of online education. These factors guide all of our program rankings.
Each of these factors are further broken down into weighted subfactors. For example, retention rates are weighted more heavily than availability of program options because they are a better indicator of student success.
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Choosing a Master's in Social Work Online Program
When researching online colleges, prospective applicants should consider factors like cost, MSW program length, and specialization options. Rather than comparing tuition rates, candidates should research the total cost. This includes fees, the total number of credits required, and textbook prices. Some programs offer accelerated options, which can mean tuition savings.
MSW students should also research the graduate placement record and field experience opportunities. Online programs often connect distance learners with local opportunities. Some programs have larger placement networks than others. By researching these factors, social work students can find the program that best suits their goals.
Accreditation for Online MSW Programs
Prospective students should always choose accredited MSW programs. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits schools of social work, including online programs. Only a CSWE-accredited degree meets the requirements for a social work license. As a result, attending an unaccredited program will limit a social worker's career options.
In addition to checking program accreditation, applicants should see if the school has regional accreditation. Some institutions have national accreditation, which doesn't meet the same standards as regional accreditation when it comes to social work degrees.
What Can I Expect When Pursuing a Master's in Social Work Online?
Degree-seekers enrolled in a master's in social work online can expect to take classes in social justice, social work practice, and social welfare policy. Additionally, social work students often choose concentrations to prepare for specialized career paths after graduation. Online learners must often complete in-person requirements for practical experience.
Social Work Curriculum
- Diversity and Social Justice in Social Work: Most social work programs include courses on diversity and social justice. MSW students engage with diversity in practice, promote social justice, and explore social identity. The course also considers theories of social oppression, the roles of privilege and power in society, and conflict resolution.
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Social environments shape how people behave. In this course, students learn to interpret human behavior and critically examine the relationship between social settings and behavior. The course also covers concepts like social network theory and social-cognitive-behavioral theory. Learners apply these concepts through case studies to strengthen their practical skills.
- Social Welfare Policy: Topics in this course may include the development of new policies, the implementation and evaluation of social welfare policies, and the broader service delivery network. Learners also examine the relationship between policy development and delivery. The course prepares graduates for policy-making roles.
- Social Work Research: Enrollees learn about research methods, including quantitative and qualitative approaches. They also study the connection between research and practice and strategies for sampling and data collection. Learners also examine ethical issues, such as informed consent, confidentiality, and cultural sensitivity in conducting research.
- Social Work with Individuals and Families: Learners build interpersonal skills and strengthen their professional practices. Coursework covers the assessment process, building relationships with clients, and appropriate social work interventions. The class prepares graduates for clinical roles working with individuals and groups.
Social Work Concentrations
This concentration prepares students for careers working with older adults. Coursework covers services aimed at aging communities, social justice issues for older adults, and program development. Core topics include healthcare, memory care, and elder abuse. Graduates are prepared for clinical roles or policy-making positions in aging services organizations.
A children and families social work concentration examines mental health among children. Students learn to assess children, provide early intervention services, and offer clinical treatment for children and families. The concentration emphasizes mental health support, protective factors, and risk factors.
This concentration trains social workers to help people facing mental and emotional challenges. Learners examine counseling practices, including methods of identifying and evaluating challenges and both individual and group treatment approaches. They also explore behavioral issues, professional challenges, and family conflicts. Graduates can pursue careers in clinical social work.
A community and social systems concentration focuses on macro-level social welfare organizations. Students examine social systems to identify potential improvements or policy needs. They also learn to conduct macro assessments and evaluate social problems. The concentration prepares graduates for roles in social work policy-making and social welfare institutions.
This concentration uses social work tools to address problems in the legal system. Forensic social workers represent clients within the justice system, acting as consultants or advocates in legal settings. A forensic social work concentration includes training in the criminal justice system and social services that connect to the legal system.
A school social work concentration examines the barriers children face in school settings. The concentration trains MSW students in issues like homelessness, violence, truancy, and challenges related to special education programs. Degree-seekers learn to work with different student populations and design student support systems in schools
Advanced Standing MSW Programs
A student with a bachelor's in social work from a CSWE-accredited program may receive advanced standing status in an online MSW program. This allows them to graduate more quickly. Typically, an MSW takes two years of full-time study to complete, but advanced standing programs usually allow students to graduate within one year.
Social Work Licensure and Certification
Social workers pursuing clinical social work, school social work, and similar fields need licenses. Each state issues its own social work licenses and sets specific licensure requirements. Generally, a licensed social worker (LSW) needs an MSW and must meet supervised experience requirements. Some states only require a bachelor's degree.
Social workers licensed in one state can often apply for a reciprocal license in other states, but it isn't automatic. They may need to meet additional requirements. Learn more about social work licensure from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing guide.
Social Work Jobs and Salaries
|Median Salary 2020: $51,340||Projected Job Growth 2020-2030: 15%|
Marriage and family therapists help families overcome challenges, including personal relationship problems, life changes, and mental health struggles. They work with individuals, couples, and families to help clients process life changes and make decisions about their futures. Marriage and family therapists also refer clients to relevant community resources and services, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities.
Strong interpersonal communication skills help marriage and family therapists support their clients. Marriage and family therapists typically hold master's degrees in social work or psychology. In every state, marriage and family therapists need licenses to practice.
|Median Salary 2020: $55,690||Projected Job Growth 2020-2030: 4%|
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists help incarcerated individuals access social services and reintegrate into their communities upon release. These professionals work with probationers, parolees, and pretrial defendants. After evaluating clients, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists design a course of rehabilitation. This can include referring clients to services like job training or substance abuse counseling.
Most probation officer and correctional treatment specialist positions require at least a bachelor's degree in social work. A master's degree qualifies candidates for advanced roles.
|Median Salary 2020: $69,600||Projected Job Growth 2020-2030: 15%|
Social and community service managers oversee social service programs. They identify the need for programs and services; plan and implement programs; and analyze program effectiveness.
Most managerial social work jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. Some employers prefer candidates with master's degrees or years of professional experience in social services.
|Median Salary 2020: $51,760||Projected Job Growth 2020-2030: 12%|
Social workers assist clients with mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. They connect clients to community resources, provide counseling services, and treat mental health issues. Social workers can specialize in niche areas, like school social work or healthcare social work.
Many social workers need master's degrees. Clinical social workers must hold MSWs and have two years of supervised experience.
|Median Salary 2020: $47,660||Projected Job Growth 2020-2030: 23%|
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors help clients manage mental health and behavioral challenges. They evaluate clients' mental and physical health, develop customized treatment plans, and help patients modify behaviors. These counselors may also make referrals to social services and conduct outreach programs to educate the public.
Most substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors hold bachelor's degrees, while mental health counselors typically need master's degrees.
Ask a Social Worker
TheBestSchools sat down with social worker, Anne Inwood to discuss how she chose to pursue a master's in social work and give advice to prospective students.
Anne Inwood works at Successful Families Together, where she provides parent coaching, parent support and resources, and parent education. She helps families create successful routines and provide therapy and counseling. She has an LCSW and a master of science in child development.
Preferred Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
When I was earning my MSW, I was able to have first-hand experience working with families in various situations while learning and working under regular supervision. I had group supervision in my courses with a professor and other students, which meant we could all learn from each other and our experiences. I learned from my internship experiences as well as the experiences of my peers.
Students studying social work should be able to have meaningful and critical self-reflection. Social workers need to be able to reflect on who they are and how their values and beliefs impact how they work with their clients. These beliefs and values may be ingrained in who a social worker is even if it's not readily apparent to them.
Social workers interact with a variety of clients who hold beliefs that can range from extreme on either end of the spectrum to more in the middle. This means that a social worker needs to be able to respond to clients with dignity and respect, no matter how similar or different their belief systems are.
This does not mean that social workers need to change their beliefs and values for a client, but they do need to be aware of what these are to make it easier to respond appropriately to clients from a variety of backgrounds.
Social work is a field that can be filled with nontraditional work hours, which also include being on call. This can make it more difficult to have courses at the same time each week as they may not be as confident of what their schedule will look like from week to week.
While there may be some specific times for course meetings, online learning can be more flexible in terms of when the student needs to be online, as long as assignments are submitted on time. It can also provide a more varied experience for students as they can learn from the experiences their peers are having in a variety of communities and environments.
In an online program, you can interact with students in a variety of states. By contrast, while students from a brick-and-mortar setting may come from various locations, they are not having their internship experiences from a variety of states.
While the Code of Ethics provides social workers with the same ethical code, this does not mean that states have the same resources and laws. I am currently teaching in an online social work program, and students are able to learn about the variety of different social work experiences — such as hospice, child welfare, and inpatient programs — and they are able to see how different laws and regulations also impact social work. It is a valuable learning experience to see the role that advocacy can play in the field.
Social work provides theories and ideas around clinical skills and providing therapy and counseling, but it also helps people learn who they are and the ideas around interacting with others. These attributes are important for everyone.
Specifically, how does a therapist help clients to know and understand themselves and their passions if the therapist is not clear on who they themselves are? If someone does not know who they are and what values and beliefs they have, how can they work effectively with others when their beliefs differ?
All of these skills can transfer to other fields and professions and are especially valuable when interacting with a client who may or may not share the same beliefs or life experiences.
Common Questions About Social Work Degrees
Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Georgia report the highest annual mean wages for social workers.
MSW programs can be very challenging, mentally and emotionally. MSW programs train social workers in social welfare policy-making, social work research, and clinical social work, which can all be technical. Students must also complete an internship or practicum, which can be emotionally challenging. Driven, compassionate students will thrive in an MSW program.
Yes. Many top-ranked social work programs offer online MSW programs. In an online setting, learners complete coursework in a distance learning format while meeting in-person clinical requirements through local mental health organizations.
An MSW and a master's in counseling prepare graduates for different careers. A counseling degree emphasizes counseling techniques and theories, while a social work degree takes a big-picture approach. Social workers provide a range of services within the social work system, while counselors typically work directly with clients.
Two years for full-time students, including internship requirements. Some programs offer accelerated options, which enable students to complete their degrees in less time. Applicants must already have a bachelor's degree.
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